CMS begins testing of unvaccinated staff at some schools

CHARLOTTE — After announcing that employees will be required to provide proof of vaccination or face mandatory weekly COVID testing, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools began its phased testing program on Monday.

The testing started at 56 schools across the district --54 of which are elementary schools. On Oct. 4, the program will expand to the rest of the elementary schools in the district.

One week later on Oct. 11, staff members will be tested at middle school and K-8 schools. CMS students will also be able to opt in for diagnostic testing on this day.

Staff members at high schools will begin testing on Oct. 25.

According to the district, health officials will use a pool testing system, which means several different samples from different staff members will be pooled together and tested. If that sample pool tests positive, all staffers in the pool will take rapid tests to help locate the positive test or tests.

In a letter sent to employees, CMS said, “To promote healthy schools and a healthy community, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is partnering with a vendor contracted by the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (Ginkgo Bioworks) to provide regular COVID-19 testing of unvaccinated staff and access to testing for students. This testing aligns with recommendations from Mecklenburg County Public Health, the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services and the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction.”

Results will be available within 48 hours.

“It can actually occur for any given employee more than once per week in the event the employee participated in a pool test that has a positive in the pool,” said Christine Pejot, chief human resources officer. “In that event, the vendor and staff come out to the school and test every individual that was in the pool that tested positive.”

CMS leaders say said that so far, no teachers or staff have refused to take the tests.

Last week, all CMS employees received a vaccine survey and were asked to upload a copy of their vaccination card. As of Monday morning, of the just over 19,100 employees total, 13,779 responded that they are vaccinated. As of Friday, 2,162 responded that they are unvaccinated.

These numbers could change and those who have yet to fill out their status will be considered unvaccinated.

Channel 9′s Elsa Gillis spoke to several parents who said they want to keep their children protected and agree with the district that testing is a way to help do that.

“I don’t mind them testing them because my youngest, he’s in fourth grade, so there’s no vaccine for them yet ,so I want to keep my child as protected as I can,” parent Kenya McDow said.

“I absolutely do think it’s a good idea. For those who are vaccinated, we don’t know who is not vaccinated. We just want to cover and protect our children,” another parent said.

What this means for CMS staff

Beginning the week of Sept. 20, CMS employees were asked to provide documentation of vaccination status. Documentation requests and submissions are made using the Qualtrics platform CMS has used for such information gathering as health attestations and symptom screening during the prior year.

The phased testing approach began with elementary school staff on Sept. 27. Mandatory testing will be weekly for staff members who do not demonstrate proof of full vaccination. The type of test is the PCR test. Testing will be “pooled,” meaning samples from several sources are mixed and then a diagnostic test performed on the mixed sample. If a positive result is returned from a pooled sample, rapid tests will be deployed to pool participants to identify positive among the pools.

CMS launched staff testing at half of elementary schools, as well as Charlotte-Mecklenburg Academy and Metro School, on Sept. 27. The week of Oct. 4 the program will expand to the other half of CMS elementary schools.

Middle schools and K-8 schools will begin staff testing the week of Oct. 11, and high school staff testing will begin the week of Oct. 25.

Employees at Transportation sites will be included in testing after all school sites are incorporated or as soon as possible during the phase-in of schools.

For Principals and Department Heads

  • Principals and department heads will be asked to assign one contact person for each school and department site.
  • School contacts and/or principals will be onboarded via 90-minute webinar.
  • The school or department contact will serve as point person to assist with organizing the testing logistics and vaccination attestation components.
  • Six regional support coordinators, one per learning community, will provide support for school personnel.
  • In partnership with Mecklenburg County Public Health, schools soon will have, at minimum, one unlicensed assistant personnel (UAP) to assist with contract tracing and test administration; MCPH will coordinate hiring and staffing UAPs.

Student Diagnostic Testing

Families will have the chance to opt-in students for diagnostic testing. This testing will help identify positive cases among symptomatic students and can help reduce quarantine time for those identified as close contacts.

Opt-in forms will be made available in the next few weeks, with a mid-October anticipated launch date for the student diagnostic testing. Students must have a signed opt-in form on file in order to participate in diagnostic testing.

School or department contacts are responsible for collecting and maintaining up-to-date student opt-in forms. More information will be shared with families regarding the opt-in procedure during the next several weeks.

Testing Model:

Pooled testing of unvaccinated staff on a weekly basis

  • Reflex (rapid) testing to identify positives among pools
  • Staffing support through vendor

Diagnostic testing for students who are symptomatic or to reduce quarantine time

  • CMS is responsible for facilitating using vendor’s reporting system
  • Students self-swab – staff ship out samples to lab

The CMS Board of Education met on Sept. 14 to talk more about COVID-19 precautions currently in place as well as future plans.

The board acted to maintain and strengthen health protections for students and staff during the continuing COVID pandemic, approving universal face coverings in schools and granting the superintendent additional authority to close schools for COVID-related reasons.

“Keeping schools safe for in-person learning remains our top priority -- and COVID isn’t over,” said Elyse Dashew, board chair. “As much as we all yearn for a return to ‘normal,’ the metrics measuring this pandemic continue to be a source of concern. In order to protect students and staff, we must maintain universal masking, and we must give Superintendent Earnest Winston the flexibility to pivot quickly if COVID hits a school or part of a school.”

CMS will continue to require face coverings for all students, staff, volunteers and visitors inside CMS buildings and buses. Exceptions may be granted if an individual meets the criteria set for in the Centers for Disease Control guidelines or the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services guidelines, including the Strong Schools NC toolkit. The Board of Education is required to review and vote on the face-coverings policy at least once a month.

The law also permits districts to close part or all of a school in the event of a COVID-related staffing shortage or quarantines, and shift to temporary remote instruction. The extended authority will continue for the remainder of the current school year.

“We want our students in classrooms for in-person instruction but we also want to keep them safe and healthy while they are there,” said Winston. “Face coverings continue to be an important front-line action we can take for student and staff safety -- and we need the ability to react quickly when a school or part of a school appears to be unhealthy. Tonight’s actions will benefit our students and staff.”

“Mask optional is not safe,” said another parent, Staci Staggs. “Failure to contact trace and failure to quarantine exposed individuals is not safe.”

A few CMS teachers spoke out against the new policy, questioning why the school board didn’t vote on it and why vaccinated staff members aren’t subject to same tough testing protocols.

“I urge everyone to stand up and fight back,” said teacher Kaitline Reid. “CMS has no right to force any individual to do anything against the best interest of their medical health.”

On Sept. 14 , Lincoln County joined Union County in loosening COVID-19 protocols and ditching most quarantine situations. Masks will be optional effective Sept. 29 in Lincoln County.

[Former Union Co. teacher opens up about district’s controversial COVID protocols]

Students are expected to be in school unless they test positive for COVID-19, symptomatic or have been given a quarantine order by the health department.

Lincoln County Schools’ policy is similar to the one in Union County.

The only people who have to stay home are those who tested positive or have symptoms.

(Watch reporter Joe Bruno’s report in the video below)